An old western movie truism (e.g., my fav Unforgiven) says good gunfighters are mainly those calm enough to aim straight. This may seem trite, but I can attest that a big success factor in life is just being calm enough to do the obvious when it really matters. A new
This sort of choking might explain stereotype threats; eg. http://www.salon.com/2012/0...
> Even perceptions of race, caste, and gender identities can have significant effects on productivity. In a brilliant set of experiments in India, low- and high-caste children were asked to solve puzzles, with monetary rewards for success. When they were asked to do so anonymously, there was no caste difference in performance. But when the low caste and high caste were in a mixed group where the low-caste individuals were known to be low caste (they knew it, and they knew that others knew it), low-caste performance was much lower than that of the high caste. The experiment highlighted the importance of social perceptions: low-caste individuals somehow absorbed into their own reality the belief that lower-caste individuals were inferior—but only so in the presence of those who held that belief.
Seems to me that mal-adaptation to the modern human environment. Most early situations generating a need for fight-or-flight levels of arousal would have been largely physical in nature. Also, the ability to "warm up" quickly to such levels of arousal based on fear of the situation would have been adaptive as well.
Alas, modern situations that are fear inducing tend to be less about running fast and more about thinking fast, so we're left with over-arousal as compared to the needs of the task at hand.
This would tend to imply that the way in which we measure fear is relative to our personal history, rather than absolute, while our reactions are absolute.
It seems to me crowds and dominant people don't like people who choke. There's a difference between being careful not to outperform one's boss or peers and signalling unreliability. Also, I wonder how choking is impacted when (1) the prize is large but there's no audience, and (2) one is avoiding a detriment rather than attempting to win a prize (although there are ethical problems with those type experiments).
This post and many of the comments seems to take as a given that evolution had to have some good reason for the way humans behave. Perhaps it is just a random "bad" trait that has survived that has not been bred out yet. Or, perhaps natural selection has been lessened to an extent, and so this bad trait is on a comeback.
That being said, it is logical to argue that choking is correlated to not trying to be the alpha male/female, which could mean one is more likely to survive. 5 studs with no fear and a desire to be the best would end up fighting to be the one alpha male, and would have a 20% chance of survival, where as people in a tribe who wanted to be competent enough to justify their existence, but not too successful to be deemed a threat, would likely have a higher survival ratio.
Consider another piece of conventional sports wisdom: the tactic of "icing" an opponent by calling a timeout before an important play (i.e. a potential go-ahead free throw or field goal). This is usually done with the explicit goal of "making him think about it," the hope being that an extended time to consider the impending task (and the presumed increase in anxiety this creates) will lead to poorer performance.
The fight-flight explanation for choking doesn't seem able to handle this, as it would predict that coaches would want opponents to have to react to high-pressure situations as soon as possible to maximize choking. This example still may reinforce the Yerkes-Dodson Law angle, though, because of the important distinction that this is a simple physical and not a complex mental task. Perhaps an optimal level of arousal for a familiar mechanical task like shooting a free throw would be achieved by an immediate reaction. Calling a timeout could interfere with this, not so much by increasing anxiety and nerves, but by decreasing arousal--killing the athlete's buzz. The problem I see with this is that anyone who has ever shot a free throw knows that subjectively it feels like you'll perform better if you're calm, not excited--ergo rituals like a certain number of dribbles or a deep breath before shooting. (Not to mention the western movie truism in the post.)
"Anybody who was ever a nerd in childhood knows that the ability to think of witty things to say under pressure is much less adaptive in the face of bullies than the ability to cower and hide."
Both of these options are indicators of the failure of the alpha-wolf or avoidance strategies. Better to be the bully, beat up the bully or, failing both, avoid the bully--than be the bully's target.
@OPAnother possibility: maybe we like to orchestrate silent coups. Maybe we want to impress, but we don't want our methods to be known, thereby eroding the perception that our authority came about effortlessly and naturally. This would also help cover out tracks so that our tactics couldn't be used against us later. So we hide our effort and shroud ourselves in an aura of infallibility by not betting our reputation on small ventures and instead staying prepared and making decisive bids for better positions. So it isn't out of lack of confidence that we maintain the status quo, it is out of a desire to force others to internally justify our ascent to higher status thus making us more secure in the new position.
I guess this only makes sense if we see the group as hostile or dumb. I think Robin's conclusions hold more water in modern society.
Also, regression to the mean doesn't seem like an adequate explanation. Mathematically it must be true, but it doesn't really tell us anything about causes.
Another possible explanation might be fear of loss aversion, or just plain loss of aversion probabilistically. So, suddenly I have this opportunity to make a lot of money. But, now that I have this possibility, I know that I will be really unhappy if I do not get it, as I will have already built some expectation of getting into my psyche. Would simply rather not have this opportunity and thus the fear of the pain of losing (not getting) it.
Robin, the difference with the performance-arousal U-curve is that the answers to most of the questions aren't specific to humans, and that the poor performance is a consequence of a process that often improves performance. If there's an evolutionary story it goes back to our distant pre-primate ancestors (like Jadagul's fight-or-flight story). This doesn't mean that status is completely irrelevant - arousal will generally be higher when the stakes are higher, and a high status audience could raise the stakes just like large financial incentives do. But it seems unlikely that we're dealing with an evolutionary adaptation based on status, and especially unlikely that it's an adaptation to perform worse that's based on status.
I'm less confident about the answers to your specific questions than the rest of what I've said, but I'll give it a try. The dominant response is something like the process that follows the strongest pathways in the brain. If doing the task is at all difficult or complicated, and not well-practiced (or built-in by evolution), then successful performance will require branching off into less obvious alternatives, overriding your first instinct, and so on. That means that favoring the dominant response will hurt your performance. Arousal may have evolved to favor the dominant response because high-stress situations were important ones where an animal benefited from acting decisively (as by fighting or fleeing). The peak is different for each task, so if evolution capped the maximum arousal level it would be at a level that is past the peak for the kinds of tasks that we've been discussing, like public speaking.
We didn't evolve in situations where we needed to be able to perform complex cognitive tasks under extreme pressure. It was much more adaptive to curl up into a ball and whimper in the corner (i.e. show submissiveness to the guy who would otherwise kill you) in situations where you weren't dominant.
Anybody who was ever a nerd in childhood knows that the ability to think of witty things to say under pressure is much less adaptive in the face of bullies than the ability to cower and hide.
An interesting question. You might get some insight by looking at studies of stutterers/stammerers, i.e. people who literally choke on their words.
While we know stuttering is physiological, there is a psychological/situational component to the severity of the symptoms. Most stutterers can be completely fluent when they talk to themselves, their pets, small children. Many find the pressure of public speaking or dating makes their problem worse. Some find when they are acting, faking accents, or speaking to complete strangers they can be fluent.
To my knowledge there are no convincing studies of why, most theories simply suggest that stressful situations 'overload' the ability of the speech system to work as intended. But it's not this simple, because certain kinds of stress have a beneficial effect.
Robin, exactly - seems irrelevant to status. I meant 'if status related, still shouldn't be problem'. But still choke, so seems to only require potential loss, not potential status change. So needs non-status-dependent explanation, unless I'm just a weird exception.
I think choking is a death spiral that starts with being nervous about making a bad impression (which in the ancestral environment might lower your status in the minds of everyone you know, potentially having catastrophic effects, such as making you undesirable to all females in your tribe [if you're male]). It becomes a genuine feedback spiral when thinking about your nervousness and the potential bad outcomes and possibly focusing your attention on the physical symptoms of distress cause you to become even more nervous, which causes you to perceive the danger to be greater, your symptoms to get stronger, etc...
The physical symptoms alone impair performance for any task having a high cognitive component. In a situation of perceived danger (to your body or status or ...), blood in the brain is shunted away from areas of higher cognition and all areas not related to basic survival and routed to muscles in preparation for fighting or fleeing. The resultant hit to cognitive ability augments the performance impairments that would already occur due to inattention as a result of focusing so much on the physical symptoms of anxiety and the potential bad outcomes.
Vertigo makes a lot more sense if it's not something evolved for specifically but is rather an accidental response to an improbable situation. Straight-down cliffs of 100 feet or more must have been pretty rare in the ancestral environment, and the height at which people experience vertigo is significantly higher than the "you probably die if you fall here" height.
Vertigo happens because part of your brain is saying "that way is down" and another part is saying "that way can't possibly be down, the ground is too far away".
Please define success in life.
@Eliezer et al:"Why do we experience vertigo when looking down from heights? Fear I can see, but why vertigo, the worst possible reaction?"
Maybe the vertigo mutation dates a long way back: individuals who experienced anything less destructive than vertigo would overcome simple fear and climb up the trees to pick juicy, nutritious fruits, taking a different evolutionary path that didn't lead to Homo erectus & C.Possibly becoming extinct later due to climate changes etc.
Again, it seems like a lot of you are making evolution capable of explaining anything (and therefore nothing). For example, in the vertigo comments, if you can explain choking as making you avoid situations where you'll fail, then there's not much evolution can't explain. Any potential observation could be rationalized as helping the gene.
I also wanted to point out that the exact opposite effect was observed in the infamous case of Joshua Bell, the violinist who started losing confidence when he played for random passers-by, and who stated how much more confident he was playing for (high-status) people who shelled out a lot of money to see him. Of course, in that case I see it as a case of the Emporer's New Clothes ... the music's greatness is due to the illusion of thinking that other people think it's great, while in a blind test no one's actually willing to listen to it.